Striking film gold
Donald Trump and his family fortunes, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and the 1919 baseball world series, Sid Grauman and his famous Chinese theatre, Klondike Kate, and elephant racing in Malaysia are hard to imagine woven together into one tale.
While the story is hinged by the famous gold rush of 1897, the historical treasure trove unearthed far up in the Yukon Territory holds more than a monetary value. And the myriad stories told in Dawson City: Frozen Time are as rich and unexpected as the loot itself.
It was a perfect storm of elements that aligned to preserve more than 500 reels of silent films from the beginning of the last century, many of them titles and footage believed to have been lost forever. While the discovery was made back in 1978 as Dawson City residents were renovating their rec centre, filmmaker Bill Morrison recently went above and beyond with the material at hand and crafted an exceptional film that deftly portrays a far deeper understanding of our civil history, while telling the bizarre story of how these reels lived to again see the light of day and share endless stories of their own.
The majority of the film plays like a silent movie, endless incredible clips needing no more than a few subtitles for context and added fact, but Morrison embellished every possible moment of the modern interviews and discovery using smart clips from 124 of the reels dating from 1910 to the early ‘20s.
The stage is set with a lesson on nitrate film, unexpectedly developed in 1846 during the manufacturing of explosives, commercialized by Eastman Kodak in 1889 and used until safety stock film hit the market in 1949. Highly flammable itself, it was the cause of numerous tragic fires claiming hundreds of lives and 75 percent of all films ever shot with it.
In tandem with the films, more than a hundred spectacular glass-plate negatives shot by American prospector Eric Hegg in the late 1800s were discovered around the same time and are used to give us an exceptional look at life up north, including Tr’ochëk, the Han fishing camp of Chief Isaac which was relocated down river from the the site which quickly grew into the remote gold mecca of Dawson City. In just a few years, cargo loads of gold worth today’s equivalent of $1.5 billion were being shipped out of a town now populated by 400,000 people. Casinos, gambling halls and theatres were the entertainment of the day and Dawson City was the end of the film circuit line, so far away the titles were out of date by the time they arrived and no distributor would pay the shipping fees for their return. So, they were stashed.
The silent films of Hollywood are well known, but weekly newsreels from the day make up a large part of the collection depicting everything from the 1917 Silent Parade in New York protesting violence against African-Americans and draft-dodger trials to the latest fashions and food trends of the day.
The sheer volume of information packed into two hours is enough to justify a second watch, especially for history and sociology buffs, a fascinating, in-depth look at the life we’ve lived.
Wed., July 26 – Thu., Aug. 3
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Metro Cinema, $12